The Art of Public Speaking

public speaking
"Like the learning of a language, practice in public speaking cannot begin too early" (Giles Wilkeson Gray). (Getty Images)

Public speaking is an oral presentation in which a speaker addresses an audience, and until the 20th century, public speakers were usually referred to as orators and their discourses as orations. 

A century ago, in his "Handbook of Public Speaking," John Dolman observed that public speaking is significantly different from a theatrical performance in that it is "not a conventionalized imitation of life, but life itself, a natural function of life, a real human being in real communication with his fellows; and it is best when it is most real."

Unlike its predecessor oration, public speaking involves an interplay of not only body language and recitation, but on conversation, delivery and feedback. Public speaking today is more about the audience's reaction and participation than an orations' technical correctness.

Six Steps to Successful Public Speaking 

According to John. N Gardner and A. Jerome Jewler's "Your College Experience," there a six steps to creating a successful public speech:

  1. Clarify your objective.
  2. Analyze your audience.
  3. Collect and organize your information.
  4. Choose your visual aids.
  5. Prepare your notes.
  6. Practice your delivery.

As language has evolved over time, these principals have become even more apparent and essential in speaking well in a public capacity. Stephen Lucas says in "Public Speaking" that languages has become "more colloquial" and speech delivery "mover conversational" as "more and more citizens of ordinary means took to the rostrum, audiences no longer regarded the orator as a larger-than-life figure to be regarded with awe and deference.

As a result, most modern audiences favor straightforwardness and honesty, authenticity to the oratory tricks of old. Public speakers, then, must strive to convey their objective directly to the audience they will be speaking in front of, collecting information, visual aids, and notes that will best serve the speakers' honesty and integrity of delivery.

Public Speaking in the Modern Context

From business leaders to politicians, many professionals in modern times use public speaking to inform, motivate, or persuade audiences near and far, though in the last few centuries the art of public speaking has moved beyond the stiff orations of old to a more casual conversation that contemporary audiences prefer.

Courtland L. Bovée notes in "Contemporary Public Speaking" that while basic speaking skills have changed little, "styles in public speaking have." Whereas the early 19th century carried with it the popularity of the recitation of classic speeches, the 20th century brought a change in focus to elocution. Today, Bovée notes, "the emphasis is on extemporaneous speaking, giving a speech that has been planned in advance but is delivered spontaneously."

The internet, too, has helped change the face of modern public speaking with advents of "going live" on Facebook and Twitter and recording speeches to a global audience on Youtube. However, as Peggy Noonan puts it in "What I Saw at the Revolution," "Speeches are important because they are one of the great constants of our political history; for two hundred years they have been changing — making, forcing — history."